Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Things That I Think Are Horrible

It's always interesting to see the reaction to various news events, like the recent Neo-Nazi demonstration and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville. The response is appropriate. Neo-Nazis really are terrible and they support horrible things. The world would be quite a lot worse off if they got their way. That said, I always feel some unease about the "shouting-down" method of confronting horrible things. The Neo-Nazi demonstrations were meant to show, "We're a big, unruly mob and we won't be reasoned with." The counter-demonstrations were meant to show, "Same here, but our mob is bigger." Of course this works fine until it doesn't. You can't always be so certain that the bigger mob will be the one on the side of the angels. That's why we sometimes  need to step back from our emotions and engage in the marketplace of ideas, even when we don't like what other people are selling.  The "our mob is bigger" method risks shutting down unpopular but good ideas before they even get a fair hearing.

I'd also like to point out that there are things in this country a hell of a lot worse than Neo-Nazis. Sure, the Nazis would be a big problem if they were more numerous. But (let's face it) they're a tiny fringe group that has been banned from polite society. Membership in such a group will lose you most of your friends in most places in America. Horrible ideas that have no chance of gaining a foothold are a lot less scary than horrible ideas that are entrenched in official government policy.

The War on Drugs is worse. The murder rate is substantially higher than it would be if we repealed drug prohibition. Blood-borne pathogens are a huge problem because of the prohibition on the legal sale of clean needles, and the repeal of this prohibition or the introduction of (often illegal-but-tolerated) needle-exchange programs reduces rates of HIV and hepatitis transmission dramatically. Draconian restrictions on prescription opioids prevent pain sufferers from getting the only medicine that works for them. Millions of innocent people are harassed, hundreds of thousands arrested, and tens of thousands jailed or imprisoned on drug charges. Militaristic, no-knock S.W.A.T.-style raids, which are primarily used to serve drug warrants, terrorize 50,000 residences a year, often holding the family at gunpoint, killing the family pet, and occasionally killing an innocent person (or for that matter, killing someone whose "crime" was selling marijuana to a willing buyer). Drug overdose deaths are a lot more common than they would be in a world without prohibition. Many of the heroin overdoses (to take the deadliest drug in recent years) are caused by rapidly fluctuating drug purity or adulteration with fentanyl or something stronger. Basically these overdoses happen because people don't know what they're buying, and they inject something that's maybe ten times stronger than what they thought. Despite all this, it is still respectable to approve of drug prohibition.

Immigration restrictions are worse. Condemning someone to third world poverty when they could otherwise have escaped is unbelievably cruel. Concerns about a "race to the bottom" for wages are grossly exaggerated. Global open borders would likely double world GDP, by our best estimates. And yet our government imposes draconian restrictions on immigration, and it's seen as respectable to approve of these restrictions.

I could go on. There are ideologies that I think are enormously harmful and government policies that implement some of these ideologies, but where it's harder to tell a "human costs" story than in the case of drug prohibition and immigration restrictions. Labor market restrictions. Prohibitions on selling your organs, something that costs us tens of thousands of lives a year. The high implicit marginal tax rate caused by various "anti-poverty" entitlement programs. The nationalization of medicine and schooling. Taxes on capital. Regulation of the market in every single industry (obviously, some are worse than others).

These things are all serious problems. I think people who support these policies are deeply misguided and mostly don't have a leg to stand on. But I would get nowhere by simply shouting curses into their faces and telling them what awful people they are. It wouldn't make much sense for me to get in someone's face and say, "You support X, huh? You're a Nazi!" No, I'd have to talk to these people. I would need to start by showing them some basic respect, like they are human beings or something. Apparently that approach also works on racists.

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